U.S. Officials Met With Iraqi Insurgent Groups Twice in Spring, Both Sides Say

By Nada Bakri
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, July 24, 2009

BAGHDAD, July 23 -- U.S. officials engaged in negotiations with Iraqi insurgent groups in two meetings this spring that culminated in an agreement to organize talks intended to bring the groups into Iraqi political life, an insurgent leader and Turkish and American officials said Thursday.

The negotiations involved at least three insurgent leaders and at least three State Department officials, who met in Turkey in March and May, said Sheik Ali al-Jubouri, an insurgent representative. A third meeting was supposed to take place in June, but it never happened, Jubouri said in an interview by telephone from Qatar.

U.S. officials declined to provide details of the meetings, which they said took place in March and April. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Thursday that military and diplomatic officials "meet with a wide range of Iraqi contacts with the purpose of promoting reconciliation and fostering national unity" and that "the meetings in question occurred some months ago and with the knowledge of officials within the Iraqi government."

"Having spent the past six years helping Iraq build a representative and effective democratic government," Crowley said, "the last thing we would do is take any action intended to undercut it."

Turkish officials confirmed that the meetings took place in Turkey.

The discussions, which were revealed in Arabic-language news media this week, have set off arguments about who was aware of them. Some Iraqi officials disputed the U.S. statement that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government had been told of the negotiations.

"I don't think there were any meetings," said Sami al-Askari, a lawmaker and aide to Maliki. "The Americans can't negotiate something like this without the Iraqi government's presence."

Jubouri said he had disclosed the specifics of the negotiations as a way to put pressure on the U.S. side after it chose not to convene the third meeting. U.S. officials suggested word of the meetings was disclosed as a way to gain leverage in political battles in Baghdad.

Iraq's insurgency has ebbed since the U.S. military managed to turn Sunni tribes in Anbar province and elsewhere against it. But elements of it are still fighting in Baghdad, Anbar and the northern provinces of Diyala and Nineveh, and U.S. military officials have suggested it may persist for years.

Jubouri is well known in insurgent circles and has appeared as a spokesman in Arabic-language media. He identifies himself as a representative of an umbrella group of several Sunni insurgent organizations led by Islamists. It does not include al-Qaeda in Iraq, a homegrown movement whose attacks have been among the bloodiest.

Jubouri said he did not take part in the negotiations with the Americans, and he declined to identify either the insurgent leaders or the U.S. representatives. He said the U.S. military had first approached the groups earlier this year. After the groups refused to negotiate with people they considered occupiers, he said, diplomats were sent instead.

At the negotiating table, Jubouri said, the groups had four main demands: an official apology to the Iraqi people for the 2003 invasion and the occupation that followed; the release of all their prisoners; a pledge to rebuild Iraq; and U.S. support for reforms that would bring the groups into the political mainstream.

"Our demands were not impossible," Jubouri said. "But we think that the Americans lost their influence and power inside Iraq to countries like Iran."

Staff writers Karen DeYoung in Washington and Anthony Shadid and Ernesto LondoƱo in Baghdad contributed to this report.

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